April 30, 2012

The Cardinal or the Headbanger?

Partly because they're sweet in their excitement for me in my coming transfer to Rome, and partly because they like to make fun of my long history of rocky relationships with spiritual directors, the brothers have been suggesting to me whom I might ask to be my spiritual director once I get to my new assignment. Two candidates have emerged:

First, Raymond Cardinal Burke:

No doubt the brothers thought of His Eminence because I share some of his opinions, but also because I am currently under the care of one of his seminary classmates.

Second, our Capuchin brother Cesare Bonizzi, sometime frontman of Fratello Metallo:

The real compliment in all this is the recognition of the sublime synthesis that is my particular vocation, and I'm sure that's what the brothers mean to say by their suggestions.

Thinking Inside The Box

To have an integrity as a religious person, one must be engaged in a continual struggle against the tendency of religion to domesticate God. Part of giving oneself to a life in community is the willingness to take up the sacrifice and difficulty of doing this not just against the background of one's own distraction and sin, but the cocktail of the collective distraction and sin of a group of Christians.

As if that weren't enough metaphors for one day, in reflecting on this I've been playing with another one: the box.

Religion is like a box into which we are supposed to put ourselves. It is a set of boundaries and definitions, practices and behaviors revealed by the Holy Spirit and built up by sacred tradition. Placing ourselves in this box helps us to hold on to the salvation we have received by providing practices that keep us mindful of the economies of grace around us and of the ways God wills us to be useful for the salvation of others. The boundaries and limits of the box help us to avoid the errors and confusions that lead us back to our former way of life, that we may be daily delivered from the misery of the vain way of life bequeathed to us by the legacy of brutality that is original sin, the vana conversatione a patribus tradita. (1 Peter 1:18. I love that phrase; it's one my favorite Easter slogans.)

Things turn around all too easily, however. Religion becomes not the box into which we put ourselves for our safety and in order to remain attentive to God, but the box into which we put God in order to domesticate him and protect ourselves from him. We can  use religion to make God into a safe and intelligible commodity, perhaps a nice resource that we as religious people are privileged to possess and even share with others (aren't we nice!) or a bean-counting judge who is happy with us and unhappy with everyone else. Or perhaps he is unhappy with us too! That's something one notices a lot as a confessor; how easily an idea of God is instrumentalized by human self-hate. Or we think that because we are religious people, we know exactly what God wants and what is expected of us. Perhaps this makes us into Pharisees, but sometimes it also makes us domesticate God by making him the nice and 'pastoral' mascot of our relativism, protecting ourselves from the discomfort and political incorrectness of ever having to say that anybody else is wrong or that their behavior is unacceptable.

The world and the flesh, in their infantile arrogance, want a God who can be safely stored and who will not challenge their rule over our lives. Of course the world and the flesh are wily; they will help us to think that we are being 'stretched' and 'challenged' even when we are growing ever more safe and comfortable with ourselves and the 'God' we have put in a pretty box.

Let us put ourselves in the box instead, the box of true religion that is God's means of freeing us for the salvation of our brothers and sisters.

April 29, 2012

Der Osterhase

I saw this over at WDTPRS and couldn't resist the re-post.

Now, this is not as bad as it looks. Not that my German is good enough to really tell what's going on, but it seems like the Easter Bunny's speech is devout enough, and my best guess is that he is invited to speak after Communion instead of giving the homily, which would be inappropriate. (Bunnies are not valid matter for ordination.) Also, he doesn't give out candy until after the blessing and dismissal, revealing that he respects the integrity of the Mass and the communion fast.

April 27, 2012

Rayos de Oscuridad

The conversion of St. Paul, as it comes to us in the version of Acts 9 in the first reading for Mass today, had me thinking about conversion. The play of light and darkness, of seeing and blindness, it really resonates with me.

The light and the voice aren't overwhelming for Saul in the midst of the experience; he is able to converse with the Lord. But afterwards he finds himself blinded. He must be helped to get where the Lord had told him to go, he has to pray and be prayed over, and only then do the scales fall from his eyes, leaving him free for the mission of Jesus Christ.

I think that this process is going on all the time in the spiritual life. Many times we see the light and hear the voice. At the same time, however, we are always being struck blind by the brightness that has found us. In our own prayer and in the prayer of others for us, ever deeper and harder scalings fall from our eyes. Indeed, the new vision that comes from such scales falling is often itself the occasion for a new blinding by the Light.

It is one of the ways the communion of saints operates in this life; we are always Paul who needs to be led by the hand and prayed over, and we are always Ananais who prays over others that they may see to embrace the mission to which God calls them. Each of us is praying Ananias for each of us who is blinded Paul.

April 26, 2012

On The Way Rejoicing

I love the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch as it comes to us in the first reading for Mass today. (Acts 8:26-40) It's just such a mysterious story. Why was an Ethiopian making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem? If he was a eunuch in the physical sense, would he have been allowed to visit the Temple? (See Deuteronomy 23:2) Where did he get a copy of Isaiah? Was he reading in Hebrew or Greek?

We don't know these things for sure. For me this is a reminder that in any encounter with another person, and in a ministerial encounter especially, we come into the presence of an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, a creative work that was going on before we got there, and will continue when we are gone. Each person is a particular journey that the Holy Spirit is creating in the world, and to which we may become present for a shorter or longer time. Ministry, then, is just reverence for the operations of grace in another, and perhaps some assistance in naming them and taking the next steps that God reveals, if and only if we ourselves have been given the grace of such a ministry.

I also love how the Spirit disappears Philip after the eunuch's baptism. Letting go is so important in ministry. There's always the temptation to make disciples for ourselves rather than for the Lord. Some disciples cling to teachers because personalities are easier to follow than the living God, but this is a failure in courage. Some teachers cling to the work of grace in their disciples as if it were partly their own possession, but this is a failure in chastity. Whenever the economies of grace invite us into reverence and care for the work of the Holy Spirit in another, there will come a point when we are called to let go and thereby confess that the salvation we have served in another is God's work and not our own.

April 25, 2012

The Deepest Sadness, the Greatest Danger

In my current state of being between assignments, I've been able to get to several books I had meant to read but never did. One of the books I'm in now is Dom Augustine Baker's Sancta Sophia, which has already shown up in a couple of posts. It's one of those books that I'm so grateful to have finally got around to reading. Sometimes I think this is an operation of grace; the Holy Spirit means for us to read a certain book at a certain moment in the journey, and makes it happen just that way.

Another book I had meant to read but never got to until now is Peter Steinfels' A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America. Whether you agree with Steinfels or not, it's an important book. Though still fairly recent (2003), it's a little jarring how dated it already feels, given certain events in the Church: the election of Benedict XVI, Summorum pontificum, the election of Timothy Dolan as president of the USCCB, etc.

I'm enjoying the book, particularly in its communication of a love and reverence for the whole of Catholic experience in the United States. As a convert without a family history in the Church, that's something good for me to sense and feel, and to hold in reverence.

What grabbed me for a post today, however, was a little line in the section in which Steinfels is correcting nostalgia for the liturgy before the reforms following Vatican II, as if this were a time of universal reverence and awe before the mystery of God. As an effective strategy for doing this, Steinfels describes the experience of being an altar boy in the days before the Mass of Paul VI: "Other priests quickly communicated to the altar boys a smug familiarity with all things sacred, a kind of authorized irreverence in which we were privileged to share." (177)

How that speaks to my experience! Not that I was ever an altar boy, but I have received the same initiation: 'Here you go, brother, accept this false liberation to which you are now entitled by being admitted to our little club. It will only end in sadness and is ultimately ordered to your damnation, but for now let me admit you to this happy irreverence that frees you from worrying about God and lets you relax and be yourself.' Boo.

I remember in one place I lived we had a public chapel where there was adoration of the Blessed Sacrament each weekday afternoon. I would often spend some time praying with the odd assortment (one has to admit) of folks who would come. One day when I was going to the chapel one of the priests asked me bemusedly if I was on my way to join those who spent their afternoons "quietly screaming at the wafer."

That comment hit me so hard that I could hardly pray for a couple of days. It's bad enough that a priest was making light of the real presence of Christ in the sacred species. In a way, though, I was even more bothered by the way he was mocking the prayer and piety of the people. Fine, maybe adoration isn't your thing, or not the way you pray. Maybe you even think it's contrary to the spirit of the reformed liturgy. (You're wrong, but that's not the point.) But none of this grants permission to treat the grace of prayer in someone--as imperfect and confused as it is in any of us--as an inside joke on which we build our own rotten and fleshly communion.

It just goes to show how vigilant and cautious we have to be in any of our disagreements and conflicts. The world, the flesh, and the devil get into them so easily.

When we invite each other into the false liberation of the "smug familiarity" and "authorized irreverence" for the things of God, it won't be long before we are also trying to build our rotten solidarity on irreverence for persons and their experience. And the incarnation has rendered all irreverence for the human person a sacrilege.

April 24, 2012

The Coming Martyrdom

Today is the feast of St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen, one of the great Capuchin saints. He was martyred in 1622, which was the founding year of the Propaganda Fide (now the Congregation of the Evangelization of Peoples) and thus became its proto-martyr.

Since I was blessed to have my turn to preach at the community Mass today, I was reflecting a little on martyrdom. It can seem like something far away, from another time or place. But this sense is false. I think of old Fr. Zygmund, who made such an impression on me with his personal knowledge of those Capuchins now numbered among the 108 Martyrs of World War II. Of course I also think of the current conflicts between the faith and our leaders here in the United States. Perhaps martyrdom isn't far behind. More and more one hears the sobering quote from Cardinal George: "I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square."

Anyone who wants to live a devout life needs to accept the possibility of martyrdom. It might be the vocation which God wills for us in the end. The thing is, however, that we might not know this until the last days--or even hours--of our earthly lives. We must be prepared. This is part of the reason we try to practice charity and penance now, so that we might be ready to accept the vocation to martyrdom when it comes.

Around the time St. Fidelis was giving his final sermon, supporters recommended to  him that he run away. They knew he was in danger. No doubt these were good and devout people, and their recommendation was the fruit of a 'pastoral' and 'balanced' discernment. It was his prior life of charity, penance, and mortification that enabled Fidelis to overcome the prudence of the flesh and the 'pastoral sense' of this world at that moment, and to suffer the fullness of his own configuration to Christ crucified which constitutes him as our heavenly patron in the propagation of the faith.

By lives of prayer, charity, and penance, may we too make ourselves willing and available for the coming martyrdom, if it be God's will for us in the end.

St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen, proto-martyr of the Propaganda Fide, pray for us.

April 23, 2012

Joys and Dubia for Giles of Assisi

For the last year and a half or so, I've been going on Monday mornings to offer Mass at the local Poor Clare monastery. It's been a great joy. One of my favorite little things is that their liturgical calendar is sometimes slightly different than ours. We follow the Capuchin Ordo, of course, but the nuns seem to follow the Ordo of the Leonine friars. I enjoy this because sometimes there is a Franciscan saint who seems to have fallen off of our calendar, but who nevertheless appears in the liturgical calendar I step into when I visit the Poor Clares.

Today is a good example, the feast of Blessed Giles of Assisi. I don't know why he seems to be absent from our calendar; Giles was one of the first companions of Francis and one of the great characters of the early Franciscan movement. One even speaks of an 'aegidian' strand in the Franciscan tradition ('Giles' being English for 'Aegidius.')

Whatever one wants to assert about the origin of Giles's so-called Golden Sayings, they're certainly interesting and challenging. Here are a couple of my favorites:

On the spiritual struggle: "A certain person said to him: 'I am frequently tempted with a most grievous temptation, and I have often asked God that he would take it away from me, and He does not take it away.' The holy Brother Giles replied to him: 'The better any king arms his soldiers with armor, the more he wishes that they should fight valiantly.'"

On preaching: "Many not knowing how to swim have gone into the water to aid those that were drowning, and they themselves have been lost with those that were perishing: first there was one evil and then there were two."

So it was a joy to be able to offer the Mass of Brother Giles this morning at the Poor Clares.

This does, however, raise a liturgical dubium. What is to be done about the proper orations? Bl. Giles has a full Mass formulary in the 1974 Roman-Franciscan Sacramentary, the liturgical book that was our parallel to the now superseded American English Sacramentary. There isn't, or isn't yet, any Roman-Franciscan Missal for the new translation.

It seems to me that there are three possible courses of action:

First, since no legitimate new translations of Mass formularies for propers of saints particular to the Franciscan calendar have yet appeared, one might presume that the ones attached to the old translation of the Mass are still in effect and licit for liturgical use. Therefore, one might use the old Roman-Franciscan Sacramentary for the proper orations but use the new Roman Missal for the rest of the Mass. Clumsy as it is to have two books on the altar, this is the solution I have decided upon. I admit that some of my choice derives from just liking the prayers themselves, such as when the Collect for Giles today speaks of the "heights of exalted contemplation."

On the other hand, a stricter view of things might suggest that the old prayers, in the style of the old translation, have gone out with the rest of the old book, and that the new Commons ought to be used for the Masses of saints who don't have, or don't yet have, proper prayers in the new translation.

Finally, the whole trouble might be avoided simply by celebrating Mass in the Extraordinary Form on Franciscan feast days, according to the 1962 Missale Romano-Seraphicum. But this won't help with poor Br. Giles, who doesn't appear therein, even though he was beatified in 1777. Perhaps his recovery into some calendars is the result of more recent Franciscan scholars providing for us an awareness of his importance. If anyone out there has a 1942 Missale Romano-Seraphicum, I would be interested to know if the feast of Bl. Giles is in there.

In any case, do pray for us, Brother.

April 19, 2012

Ranty Ramble on the CDF to the LCWR

Reading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's "doctrinal assessment" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, I found it to be an encouraging document. Many of the concerns it notes are issues that have been troubling to me at times in my own experience of religious life: a "diminution of the fundamental Christological center," a sense of moving beyond the Church or even Jesus Christ, and a presumption of dissent from the Church's teachings on the sacraments and sexuality.

When I was first in religious life I found such things terribly confusing. In my innocence I had presumed that Catholic teaching would be a given in Catholic religious life. I learned, with much anguished confusion, that this wasn't always the case. My confusion was so bad that it contributed to my having to leave my first entrance to religious life after a year and a half.

After that, I confess that I gave in a little bit. My first experiences of religious life had taught me to disregard my instincts somewhat. In my second attempt at religious life, I think I sometimes conformed to the madness in order to have this vocation that I wanted. In studying for ordination, I'm sure I many times said and wrote the politically correct thing instead of the right thing. When we were made daily to recite texts from a feminist prayer book, I probably should have been praying Morning and Evening Prayer from some proper edition of the Liturgy of the Hours on my own, but I wasn't.

It's taken me a while to recover my senses again, but I think I have, more or less, and I'm grateful to God and to many who have given me good example.

But as we are grateful for a document such as this, and pray for our bishops in such difficult and delicate ministries, we have to be very careful. In praying through all this a scene from the past came into my heart. It was during the days when I was discerning my return to religious life. I had gone to spend time in the house of temporary vows of a certain community. On the same day I arrived to hang out and pray and observe for a few days, the brothers in formation were just returning from some workshop. That evening at recreation their fun was the unmerciful mocking of the woman who had been the presenter. The guy who was the ringleader in this, utterly self-righteous in his orthodoxy, kept repeating with derision how this presenter described herself. I can't remember the whole thing, but I do remember that it ended with 'ecofeminist process theologian.' Pompous, yes, but the way these guys were mocking this person, it really turned me off.

The devil is very happy for us to be right, so long as he can use our rightness for his own ends. And many times we fail to take seriously how good he is at doing just that.

I write this post from a room in a building that used to be a convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph. They taught in the building across the street. It used to be a school, but now the school is closed and the building is mostly empty and unused. The sisters who prayed and slept in this room where I sit today probably worked harder for those kids than I have ever worked for anything. They were the force of one of the most glorious and successful movements of social uplift that human civilization has ever seen, the Catholic school system in the growing United States.

As a religious, am I part of anything that could compare with that?

Or am I, and mainstream male religious life in general, more concerned with my comfort, security, and lifestyle expectations than with the mission of Jesus Christ? May that thought pierce my conscience each time I find myself watching TV with a beer and box of Cheez-Its in the room where sisters would have labored at laundry either before or after a long day of teaching and service.

Therefore, and on this day when we celebrate the anniversary of the election of our holy father Benedict XVI, let us be grateful for a Church that is recovering her bearings in the truth of her faith, but let us also let God heal us from the lukewarmness and decadence that keeps us from letting God make something of it.

April 18, 2012

The Dark Night of the Meatloaf

From the friary kitchen:

Friar 1: "This looks good!"

Friar 2: "It fell apart a little."

Friar 1: "Still looks good!"

Friar 2: "I didn't put enough breadcrumbs, so when I took it out of the form, it fell apart."

Friar 1: "I had the same problem with my spirituality."

Friar 2: "Not enough breadcrumbs?"

Friar 1: "When it came out of the form, it fell apart."

The Blessed Between

This past Sunday was my last Mass at the parish where I have been going since last year. Leaving this little 'help out' has thrown me deeper into the liminal space, the in-between time, that first crashed open when I got the call about the Rome job back in September and realized that I wouldn't be finishing the doctoral program at BC.

At the Mass one of the songs was Dan Schutte's Blest Be The Lord.

Music hooks itself into memory so deeply. For example, I can't hear the Beastie Boys' Ill Communication album without being taken back to another very liminal period, the six weeks or so in between my graduation from college and my first entrance into religious life. Though I have no desire to do so, if I were to listen to the albums House of Pain or the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Mother's Milk, I would certainly be taken right back to the cheap pool hall at University College Galway where I spent so many afternoons in the spring of 1993. Those were the only two records they had, and they alternated loudly and continuously. But a game of 8-Ball was only 35p, so what do you want?

Of course I would rather have a Graduale romanum or a Liber usualis in my hand than an OCP hymnal and even though Blest Be The Lord is pretty hokey, at least it's a psalm. But in any case it sure takes me back. At the Saturday vigil Mass at Harkness Chapel on the campus of Connecticut College, Blest Be the Lord was in very heavy rotation back in the fall of 1992 when I was a new Catholic. It will probably always remind me of the sense and feel of my neophyte days.

Hearing and singing this song at Mass on Sunday has stuck with me during this week. It has come into prayer as the gratitude for the way a liminal time, in its concentration of endings and beginnings, brings back the clarity and innocence of early inspirations. Grace uses the peculiar openness of the time to re-member the journey of self and the salvation God delights and desires to give.

April 17, 2012

On Being an Unreasonable Person

One of the most dangerous things in community life is the idea that I'm a reasonable person. Of course it is true that salvation, at least in this life, consists in becoming reasonable. The only-begotten Word, the logos of God, who is Reason and Wisdom, became man so that my injured and sick humanity might be renovated in the divine Reasonableness.

As St. Paul says in St. Jerome's translation, being transformed in mind rather than conformed to this age is our rationabile obsequium, our 'rational' service. In Paul's Greek, it is λογικὴν λατρείαν, our 'logical' worship. To become rational, logical people in the logos, is our happiness and freedom and salvation. (Romans 12:2)

But this salvation is a work in process. A brother might have grown from the unreasonableness of his infancy to have become reasonable in some areas; he might be a reasonably good preacher or liturgical presider, or a reasonably good friend or listener or cook or cleaner, but most of us are not yet saints and remain unreasonable and immature in various ways. Often these can be blind spots or eccentricities or family of origin roles of which we are in denial or don't even notice, and this makes it all the easier to notice and get worked up by the annoying craziness of others while simultaneously forgetting how much unreasonableness the rest of the community puts up with from us ourselves.

Of course this is an application of the Lord's advice to notice the wooden beams in our own eyes before we are solicitous to remove the speck from the eye of our brother. The world, the flesh, and the devil are all eager to help us make excuses for our own faults and sins, so long as we deny any excuse or benefit of the doubt to others.

When I forget that I too am still an unreasonable person, I remove from myself the protection of remembering how much pointless idiosyncrasy and maladaptive eccentricity I am forgiven on a daily basis, and the world, the flesh, and the devil will have an easier time tricking me into condemning my unreasonable brother or sister.

April 16, 2012

On Discretion and Troubling Conversations

I've had a couple of similar experiences lately that have troubled my conscience. Each was a conversation with an older women who had assisted at a Mass I was celebrating.

In one conversation the woman, on hearing that I was to be transferred to Rome, offered her condolences and encouraged me to "straighten them out over there." The Pope and the hierarchy were "out of touch," she said, as she also explained to me that one of the great virtues of Catholics in the United States was that we "didn't feel obliged to follow every dumb edict that comes from Rome."

In the other conversation, the woman complimented me on my daily Mass homilies and said that I was "right up there" with the "woman priest" whose 'Mass' she attended on Sundays. She went on to explain to me how liberating it felt to have "Mass" with a "woman priest." This wasn't a Protestant thing either, she went on to explain, her priest was a real Catholic priest.

Both times I just listened and tried to be polite. I didn't challenge any of it. I guess doing so is according to some of my instincts; part of me thinks it would be disrespectful to issue uninvited challenges to those who are older than me, especially when they are folks who were probably doing all kinds of good work and parish service before I was a even a Christian, and probably before I was born.

On the other hand, I'm a priest, an ordained minister in the church and a steward of the Church's teaching and sacramental mysteries. In that sense, do I sin in the second case if I don't encourage my interlocutor to attend an actual Sunday Mass? Her confusion probably mitigates her guilt with regard to the Sunday obligation. But if I'm just polite and thus passively encouraging, am I not complicit? Should I not confess and ask absolution for failing to even try to plant a gentle seed of correction? In some sense, am I not now the guilty party in her absence from Sunday Mass?

There are so many situations like this in ministry and community life. It's so hard to know when you should challenge and when the better part of gentleness invites you not to. And since they all have to be discerned in an instant, I know I need to pray for the gift of that discretion ahead of time.

April 14, 2012

God Is the Bigger Elvis

In the quiet of a Friday afternoon yesterday, I finally got around to seeing Rebecca Cammisa's God Is the Bigger Elvis, the short film about Dolores Hart which came to everyone's attention when it was nominated for an Academy Award this past year.

I appreciated several aspects of the little documentary. Most simply, as a Connecticutian myself, I had always been curious about the Abbey of Regina Laudis, but had never visited or known much about it.

On a deeper level, though, I was grateful for the way the film treats of the religious vocation in an individual life. In addition to the story of Dolores herself, the vocation stories of a couple of other nuns are touched upon as well. There's a reverence about the treatment, in the sense that a religious vocation is, on the one hand, something for which no apology needs to be made. On the other hand, the film communicates well that the experience of vocation touches upon certain intimacies and mystery that defy being shared with an audience.

I also appreciated how religious life is displayed in all of its unglamorous plainness. I was reminded of the Trappist who told me that his favorite aspect of Philip Gröning's Into Great Silence was that it showed the monks with unsightly nose and ear hair. "Religious life is not so pretty as it usually seems in the movies, brother." (Of course I also loved seeing the Abbey liturgy. The sisters were praying in Latin (according to the spirit of Vatican II)  and were shown receiving Holy Communion by intinction--and I mean the right way, on the tongue and without illicit self-communication.)

Most of all, the film made me reflect on celibacy. In it one meets Dolores's former fiancé, with whom she broke up in order to enter the Abbey. He is even shown making a visit. Almost fifty years later he admits that he isn't over Dolores, and doesn't appear to have ever married. The whole business sits at the awkward intersection of sweet and sad. Anyone in professional ministry will have their boundary buzzers go off during these scenes, but perhaps it reminds us that boundaries are often messier than what our textbooks taught us.

Even though I reflect on it from time, I don't blog on it because I don't have anything solid to say, but the film certainly convinced me even more that female and male celibacy are somewhat different things. Maybe some readers have thoughts on that.

Maybe I missed it, but one thing I was surprised to miss was a mention of Dolores having played St. Clare in Francis of Assisi (1961).

God Is the Bigger Elvis is really worth a look if you have a chance.

April 12, 2012

Dom Augustine Baker on Religious Life

A long time ago I had a certain realization in prayer that has haunted me ever since. I realized, on the one hand, that God have me a religious vocation because this was his best chance of saving my life, making me a saint, and making some use of my gifts for the good of the world. In that, then, I have the confidence that this vocation is ordered to my happiness and sanctity. On the other hand--and this is the scary part--I realized that if I were to become worse rather than better by my religious life, I would end up in a worse condition than I ever could have deteriorated into while living in the world.

I was thinking about this old reflection as I came across this stark description of the same in Dom Augustine Baker:

"In the same sense, and with the same conditions, we are to understand the nine privileges that St. Bernard affirms are to be found in a religious state. For surely it was far from his meaning to apply said privileges to any but industrious souls, whose principal care is to purify themselves interiorly, and not at all to tepid persons that neglect to correspond to their profession. For who but the industrious and vigilant: 1. do live more purely than men do in the world; 2. or fall more seldom; 3. or rise more speedily; 4. or walk more warily; 5. or rest more securely; 6. or are visited by God more frequently; 7. or die more confidently; 8. or pass their purgatory more speedily; 9. or are rewarded in heaven more abundantly?

"On the contrary, it is justly to be feared, yea, to certain it is, that habitually tepid and negligent souls in religion are in a far worse state, more immortified, more cold in devotion, more estranged from God every day than others, considering that, in the midst of the greatest advantages and helps to fervour and purity, they will continue in their negligence; and therefore they must expect, for their obstinate ingratitude and for their offending against so great light, that they shall be more severely punished by Almighty God than others the like that live in the world." (Sancta Sophia, I, 3, III, 5)

Heal me, Lord, of my negligence and tepidity, and make me industrious and vigilant!

April 11, 2012

The Gift Is Not Like The Trespass

As I was praying the Office of Readings this morning, it struck me how lovely it is to get to pray a Te Deum every day during this Easter Octave. The Easter Octave is like a week of Sundays; on each day there is a Te Deum in the Liturgy of the Hours and a Gloria in the Mass. Then another thought came to me: the six 'extra' singings of the Te Deum and Gloria on the Monday through Saturday of the Easter Octave recover the ones omitted on the six Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter. I'm also pretty confident that there are enough alleluias in the antiphons, hymns, and dismissals of the Easter Octave to make up for the alleluias omitted during Lent.

But Easter isn't just the Octave; it is a whole season of fifty days that is, as Athanasius put it, one great Sunday. At the end of it, I'm sure that we will have sung more alleluias than if the whole of the paschal cycle of Lent, Triduum, and Easter had just been thirteen more weeks of Ordinary Time. We end up with more than we gave up.

The Easter alleluia of the Church is superabundant; it goes far beyond the alleluia-silence of Lent. This reminds us that the death and Resurrection of Christ is not just a restorative remedy for the fallen creation. As one of my teachers used to put it, "the Incarnation is not plan B." The paschal mystery not only renders the sin of Adam 'completely destroyed' as the new English Exsultet sings it, but opens up to us and for us the infinite mystery of creativity and delight that we call the Blessed Trinity. The humanity of Christ, passing through all of the misery and alienation that we have insisted upon for ourselves with our sins, becomes the ladder and door by which we are invited to step into the divine life. We have only to allow our humanity to buried with his in baptism, that we might rise with our own humanity newly configured to his divinity.

The creation happens through the only-begotten Word precisely so that this Word might be incarnate in it, that the eternal and infinite dynamic of Love that we call the Father and the Son might share itself with even more superabundance.

Buried and raised with the new Adam, we find ourselves in an even more happy condition than the first Adam enjoyed in the original blessing. Even more than being restored to the happiness of unfallen creatureliness, we are drawn into the very life of God.

April 10, 2012

Peter's Example and Unregenerate Pastoral Care

(Another rant today, I guess. I must have been saving them up inside.)

St. Peter is one of my favorite players in the telling of the paschal triduum. In him we witness a remarkable transformation; in the reading of St. John's Passion on Friday, Peter denies Jesus three times. Then, at the Mass of Easter Sunday, we hear the bold confession and speech he makes in the house of Cornelius. This post-Resurrection Peter is quite a different character than the fearful and bumbling Peter who was a disciple of Jesus in his historical life; now we see Peter the Apostle, the bold preacher on whom the apostolic ministry of unity is founded, and who will soon enough go to his own martyrdom.

But here's the funny thing: in many homilies I've heard and spiritual advices I've been given along the way, it's not the latter Peter who is adduced as an encouragement, but the former.

For sure, the dullness and 'not getting it' of the disciples in the gospels is always a helpful reflection; it's easy enough for us to be like that too, just as it is very easy to slip into the misplaced religiosity of the scribes and Pharisees as the gospels describe it. We must always remember, and the Scriptures constantly needle and encourage us in this regard, that it's easy enough to call yourself a Christian, or to do religious stuff, without actually being a hearer and disciple of the living God.

On the other hand, I find it increasingly sad and annoying when I hear the example of the pre-Resurrection disciples adduced as an excuse for bumbling and mediocrity. Imagine a scene: I confess to some teacher or elder my struggles against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and ask how I might make progress in holiness and faithfulness to God. And so I am told: 'Don't be so hard on yourself. Look at Peter. He struggled to understand, he didn't always get it, and he even denied Jesus three times.' To that I want to say, 'Yes, let's look at Peter; he fearlessly preached that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ constituted him as the Risen Lord and Judge of all, and he went humbly to his own crucifixion.'

Are we not people who live in these last days inaugurated by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? Should not our models and examples be the disciples in their transformation by that same Resurrection, rather than their confusion and dullness before they understood?

April 9, 2012

The Unprecious Blood

Recently I went to a church to offer a Mass. That's the itinerant life of the 'help out,' of the mercenary priest. I arrived during the communion procession of the Mass scheduled before the one I was to celebrate. I entered by a side door to the sacristy. While I was sitting there saying my prayers, a minister of Holy Communion rushed in. He showed me an empty cup, and asked me if there was any way I could get him a "refill." Now usually in situations of this type I'm able to deflect my annoyance with some kind of humorous recollection of the wine crisis at the wedding at Cana, but this time, as I realized that the man thought I would know where the wine was kept so that he could have more for his cup, all I could manage--in my horror--was, "That's not how it works."

Several times over the course of my life in the sacred ministry I have had experiences with certain ministers of Holy Communion that reveal that they do not understand that the consecrated sacred species is a different thing than the altar breads and wine in the sacristy. I have caught well-meaning folks trying to top off pyxes and ciboria of the Blessed Sacrament from the supply of altar breads in the sacristy. When confronted, almost all of them acted perplexed at my concern.

I guess it's a failure of catechesis and formation. But underneath I always ask, why bother then? If the Eucharist isn't really the Body and Blood of Christ, what's the point? If it's just an idea, I'm staying home. I can have ideas by myself without all this hassle, thank you very much. I need the Church because that's where the sacraments are. And if the Lord isn't risen into the sacraments and into his sacramentally renovated people, what's the big deal about the Resurrection? Then it's only some optimistic miracle from history. But I don't need the Church for optimism either. If all we preach is optimism and activism, then it's only a testament to people's good sense that they decide the Church is irrelevant.

Our generalized irreverence for our Lord's Presence as the sacred species exists in a mutually reinforcing relationship with the erosion of our assent to the truth of this teaching. The more irreverent we are the more we will take Him lightly in our minds, but the more reverent we try to behave, the easier it will be to believe.

I don't mean to single out extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion in this rant; many that I have worked with put us ordinary ministers to shame by their reverence and the gravity with which they take their ministry. We priests are sometimes just as guilty, if not more, by the casual way we handle the Body and Blood of Christ. In fact, I include myself in the accusations of this rant. On Holy Saturday morning I was asked if I would restore the Blessed Sacrament to the tabernacle that night. I intended to do so when I returned home from the Easter Vigil at the Poor Clare monastery. But, after the Mass, having broken the fast with one of the brothers with the traditional Chinese food and beer and then going to sleep, dutifully not saying Night Prayer, I totally forgot. Having just preached to the nuns about our Lord risen into the Eucharist and ourselves as his body, I totally forgot to restore him to his tabernacle after his Friday and Saturday of exiled repose.

May God grant me the grace to repent of my impiety and irreverence before I face him as my beloved Judge. And may I know how to help others recover from our confusion, irreverence, and ignorance. Amen.

April 8, 2012

Light Against The Lights

"Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible.  Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of enlightenment?  With regard to material things, our knowledge and our technical accomplishments are legion, but what reaches beyond, the things of God and the question of good, we can no longer identify." -Pope Benedict XVI, homily for the Easter Vigil

Indeed, do we not suffer greatly and wander in the darkness of many confusions because of a sort of interior light pollution?

April 7, 2012

Surrexit Christus spes mea

I scheduled this post to appear at the time of sunrise on Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Clever, no?

Happy Easter, everyone. May the new life of our Risen Lord well up in every heart!

I thought that since many will be denied the sequence at Sunday Mass today, even though it isn't optional, I would post it for you.

Victimae paschali laudes
immolent Christiani.

Agnus redemit oves:
Christus innocens Patri
reconciliavit peccatores.

Mors et vita duello
conflixere mirando:
dux vitae mortuus, regnat vivus.

Dic nobis Maria,
quid vidisti in via?
Sepulcrum Christi viventis,
et gloriam vidi resurgentis: 

Angelicos testes, sudarium, et vestes. 
Surrexit Christus spes mea: 
praecedet suos in Galilaeam. 

Scimus Christum surrexisse 
a mortuis vere: 
tu nobis, victor Rex, miserere. 

Amen. Alleluia!

Christians to the Paschal Victim
Offer your thankful praises!

A Lamb the sheep redeems;
Christ, who only is sinless,
Reconciles sinners to the Father.

Death and life have contended
in that combat stupendous:
The Prince of life, who died, reigns immortal.

Speak, Mary, declaring
What you saw, wayfaring.
The tomb of Christ, who is living,
The glory of Jesus' Resurrection;

Bright angels attesting,
the shroud and napkin resting.
Yes, Christ my hope is arisen;
to Galilee he goes before you.

Christ indeed from death is risen,
our new life obtaining.
Have mercy, victor King, ever reigning!

Amen. Alleluia!

Sabbato Sancto

I have always loved Holy Saturday. The emptiness of it just speaks to my praying heart. "There is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep," says the homily in the Office of Readings today. Jesus Christ sleeps in our death. As both a good Jew in his humanity and as the one God in his divinity, he rests on the Sabbath, on this last day.

I used to notice the emptiness of this day most strongly when I was a parish priest. There was hardly anything to do, that is, apart from decorating, rehearsals, and set-up. No morning Mass, no possibility of a wedding or funeral, not even much to eat given that I try to accept the Church's exhortation to keep the paschal fast. Just prayer, and the cauterizing quiet of contemplation:

"What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, cliches, slogans, rationalizations! The worst of it is that even apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with all the rest. It is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing my occupy the place that God has commanded be left empty: the center, the existential altar which simply 'is.'" (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 13)

Let us rest with the Lord in the renovating emptiness of this Sabbath. In it we sit, once again for the first time, in the last day of the old creation. As this last day ends with the setting of the sun, let us go with quiet and open hearts to the great Vigil that opens the new creation. Let us hear the effective word of God calling us forth from the water as his new creatures, and let us know our renovated hearts bursting with the Easter slogan, sursum sunt quaerite, 'seek the things that are above.'

April 5, 2012

Do I have to go to the Triduum?

Somebody asked me: do I have to attend the services of the Triduum?

The short answer, as it seems to me: no.

Of course there is the Sunday obligation, which certainly includes Easter Sunday. I would maintain that the Mass of Easter Sunday is part of the Triduum, which begins with either Evening Prayer or the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Thursday and spans the three days until Evening Prayer on Sunday. In my Catholic life before priestly ordination, after which such a question became moot, I had always presumed that assistance at the Easter Vigil satisfies the Sunday obligation.

I guess the liturgies of the Triduum are like Ash Wednesday; they're not 'holy days of obligation' but just things that one does. But I don't think they are obligatory in any sense. In fact, the Liturgy of the Hours would even seem to suggest this; because the Mass of the Lord's Supper and the liturgy of the Passion replace Evening Prayer on Thursday and Friday, and the Easter Vigil replaces Night Prayer for Saturday and the Office of Readings for Sunday (I daresay that this is perhaps the only day of the year that some clerics thereby 'fulfill' their obligation to recite the Office of Readings. And why not? If you're only going to say your prayers once a year, what better day than Easter Sunday?), the rubrics are clear that those who do not assist at these liturgies are supposed to pray these Hours. In other words, the Liturgy of the Hours, in providing for those who do not attend the special services, suggests that such is a legitimate possibility.

Even more, though these liturgies are at the heart of the whole liturgical year for us, there could be fine reasons to opt out. The Mass of the Lord's Supper, though it is one of the most deep and beautiful liturgies of the whole Roman rite, can be especially prone to misplaced innovation and liturgical abuse. Somebody who is sensitive to such things might stay away just for the sake of keeping his recollection. On Friday, of course, there are many different prayers and devotions available in addition to the official liturgy. Someone might prefer something else, though the reception of Holy Communion is not to be dismissed.

But how about the Easter Vigil? Do you have to go? Do you have to feel guilty if you would rather not? Well, the Vigil is certainly a spectacular liturgy, and one that holds within itself a superabundance of symbol, meaning, and encouragement. But it can also be very long. Also, because of its intricate nature, it can be given to distracting liturgical disasters. (Everyone has stories. Sitting down for a drink after one Easter Vigil when I was a parish priest, my pastor said, "Well, let's just say this and call it a night: at least the church didn't burn down.") The Easter Vigil can be somewhat focused on the Elect (rightly) and those who are candidates for some combination of Eucharist, Confirmation, and full communion (wrongly) and sometimes these folks aren't known well to the average parishioner. This isn't a good thing, but it's often the situation on the ground. I remember one Easter Vigil before I was in religious life. I showed up to church early so I could pray my private preparation. Ahead of me in the front row were those to be initiated. I had never seen any of them before, and nor did I see any of them at Mass ever again. Over their nice clothes, each was wearing a lovely new brown scapular. I remember thinking it odd that someone should have be enrolled in the brown scapular--if indeed they were properly enrolled--before being baptized. (It's to be worn under the clothing in any case.) In this sense the Easter Vigil can seem like a graduation liturgy for a bunch of people one doesn't even know. And perhaps there are other reasons why someone might decide not to go.

So I guess that's my long answer. Assist and pray through these amazing liturgies as best you can. But if there's some reason why you would prefer not to, don't worry about it. Pray your prayers on your own, including the Liturgy of the Hours if that's something you do or are supposed to do. In your charity, pray for me, as I will in these days for all who support me in the little outlet of this blog.

April 3, 2012

Nox Clara

Judas goes off to betray Jesus. 'And it was night,' adds St. John.

But as soon as the evangelist makes this note, Jesus announces his imminent glorification, and the glorification of God in him. Nunc clarificatus est Filius hominis et Deus clarificatus est in eo.

Night becomes glory. Judas's handing over of Jesus to the Cross leads to Jesus' handing over the Spirit from the Cross, as shall hear in John's Passion on Friday.

That's the sacred tradition by which the Blessed Trinity foils the senseless stupidity of sin and death. The Father hands over the Son. The Son is handed over by the betrayer. But the betrayal is turned into the handing on of the Spirit to us.

So let us go into the night. Let us receive in prayer the rayos de oscuridad that, as John of the Cross teaches us, are actually the Light.

April 2, 2012

In Praise of Shallow Praise

(I know I promised a post on the lovely and mysterious Mary of Bethany, but another reflection came to me on my walk to the Poor Clares this morning. I'll get to Mary. Along with Mary Magdalene and the woman with the hemorrhages, she's one of my great models of prayer from the gospels.)

Holy Week always gets me thinking of and grateful for the itinerancy of my Christian life. I think of all the places I've been for Easter Vigils over the years. On my walk to the nuns' this morning I was just reflecting back through all of these and praying for the various communities, places, and parishes. But my attention stopped on one Holy Saturday in particular. It was twenty years ago on April 18, 1992, toward the end of the second semester of my sophomore year of college, and the last Holy Saturday before I became a Catholic.

For his own purposes, God leaves me with a pretty vivid memory of that night. When I think of it, it reminds me how shallow my conversion really was, and how defective my intentions. Not that recalling this should be an occasion for self-pity, even when I notice how shallow and defective it all remains to this day--such is the devil's agenda!--but rather a moment to recall my own poverty and the God who calls us in his love for our souls and not on account of our being worthy or even interesting.

It had been a pretty drunken semester. My girlfriend, who was one of those well-behaved sort of girls, was away in Florence for the semester studying art, and I was thus liberated from her moderating influence. My friends and I were settling into the identity of philosophy majors, and were quite convinced that we were as smart as could be. It was all a lot of fun. Toward the end of the semester, and certainly by Easter, I had more or less decided that I wanted to become a Catholic. Soon I would tell the priest who was on campus two afternoons a week of my decision. He would give me a note of introduction to the local pastor. It was Ascension Thursday when I went. The pastor handed me over to the permanent deacon, who would give me my 'convert instructions' and then baptize me at the end of that summer. Yes, I came into the Church like converts did before the restoration of the catechumenate and the RCIA. Like St. Paul, I was born out of order. But all of that was 'not yet' just a few weeks before on Holy Saturday.

I remember that there were posters around campus listing the various Holy Week services. They were white with the lettering in purple. I studied the notice, but it didn't occur to me to make plans to attend anything. It was not something I 'had to do' yet. This idea I had of becoming a Catholic Christian; it was mostly in my head. It was concepts. It wasn't yet prayer and it certainly wasn't anything related to a praying community. But God was there, calling me. In his self-emptying he wills to make a throne out of even our inadequate ideas of him. That's the mystery of the Cross as it comes to live in our wills. God is willing to die in our defective and incomplete religion in order to deliver us to the pure faith of prayer.

On Holy Saturday night, the Elect were all around me, all over the world, receiving the sacramental initiation for which I also hoped. But I wasn't there praying with them. Even though I had vaingloriously begun to call myself a catechumen, it didn't even occur to me to attend an Easter Vigil. Instead, I was drinking with my friends. I was at a show of campus bands and having a great time. In the moshing I jammed one of my thumbs. I think I probably broke it a little bit. It hurt for a long time. It was well past midnight when the music was over and I found myself alone. I was hungry. So I walked off campus, crossed Route 32, and went to the glorious mess of alternativity that was Abbey House, the cooperative living dormitory. I cooked a hamburger in their kitchen, thinking that it was late enough at night not to be caught in the theft.

By the time I got back to campus and my own dormitory, Smith, it was going on four o'clock. Noticing one of the Holy Week posters on the walk back, I saw again that there was to be a Protestant service at sunrise. Since I was already up, I thought, I may as well go. After all, I was going to be a Christian, and so Easter ought to mean something. Arriving on the grass outside the chapel I met the Protestants. I got to talking with one student I knew because she had once tried to start a relationship by asking me to help her with her linear algebra homework. She was telling me about how she had been dreaming about the Resurrection when her alarm went off and she joked and said something like, 'Get out of the way Jesus, I have to turn off the alarm clock.' I remember thinking that she was corny. When I think of that, I am ashamed.

I sang and prayed with them. When a cup of wine was passed around, I had a hard time holding it because of my injured thumb. It's so funny to think of that twenty years later, when I daily gasp chalices of the Precious Blood without using my thumbs at all, como Dios manda. The back of the worship aid had a stylized image of the women at the tomb with a triple alleluia written below them. I cut it out and put it on my dorm room door.

After the service I didn't stay for the collation that followed. To be honest, I don't remember anything after that. I suppose I went back to my room and went to sleep for a little while, until my friends were ready for that great ritual of hungover grease and caffeine ingestion, the Sunday brunch at Harris refectory.

The Lord calls to us just where we are. He is willing to suffer in our shallow praise and defective intentions in order to save us from them. That's the sublime humility of the Cross, the humble sublimity of his Presence in the Eucharist. His power is revealed in our weakness. In that spirit, I boast of my shallow and defective conversion.

April 1, 2012

Examination of Conscience for Passion Sunday

Palm Sunday. Passion Sunday. Dominica in Palmis de Passione Domini. The core narrative of the gospel is proclaimed and remembered, an account of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

The telling of the Passion draws my attention and my wonder into Christ crucified, as it always has. It is a mystery so deep, and one which I forever feel like I have only barely begun to take seriously on the levels of prayer, Christian life, and theological reflection.

What should this mean, that almighty God, the Source and Ground of all that has being, the I AM who revealed himself to Moses, is revealed as an immobilized, condemned and tortured man? What then do we mean when we talk about the power of God, when we worship this God-man precisely in this state of not being able to move his hands and feet, much less make anybody else do anything?

Have I really taken this revelation seriously? How much of my worship of 'god' is still the worship of Zeus on the one hand or the golden calf on the other? How much does my own lukewarmness and hypocrisy render my prayer and adoration into the likeness of the mocking worship of the soldiers? (And yet hope is to be found even there, for Christ died for them too.)

Have I really taken up the Cross in my own life, as Jesus commands those who would be his disciples? That is to say, have I taken seriously that the mystery of his Passion has sanctified and made saving the intersection between love and suffering? On the one hand, have I let God make my own suffering into the means by which he wills to work my salvation through the humanity of Christ? How much of this suffering have I squandered by resisting it, failing to embrace it, or self-medicating it away, trading away the blessedness God desires for me for the poisonous ennui of this world? On the other hand, have I been willing to suffer in order to really love my brothers and sisters? Have I prayed for the willingness? How often have I simply dealt with people rather than forming my behavior toward them out of a desire for their salvation, even if this should cause me pain, difficulty, or rejection? And have I rejoiced in such opportunities to embrace the intersection of love and suffering that is the Cross?

Via autem non est nisi per ardentissimum amorem crucifixi.

Most high and glorious God, I praise you and thank you for drawing my mind and heart to your crucified Son. Through him, grant me the willingness to surrender ever more to the mystery of his Cross, and to trust that whatever this might mean, it is your passionate desire for my salvation. Amen.